Apr 6, 2009 10:00am
Re: phil's new bass - Start with 69, and move forward.
1969 Ron left Ampex to devote all of his energies to the new field of multi-track recording. After working at Pacific Recording for 6 more months, he decided to leave Pacific Recording to form Alembic and work with The Grateful Dead who had a larger than average interest in improving the quality of their sound. Together they had plans for improving the quality of the final product, the record.
We moved to Novato where the Dead had their office and rehearsal space in what was affectionately known as "The Pink behind Pinky's". The building was the color of Pepto-Bismol and was located down a long driveway behind Pinky's Pizza Parlor. We shared a fence with Hamilton Air Force Base.
Alembic had its offices in the building with the Dead and separate workshop and living space behind the warehouse. The artist Bob Thomas lived there as well on the mezzanine. He was responsible for many of the Dead Album covers, such as "Live Dead" (painted on the mezzanine) and "Bear's Choice" (painted on the Alembic mezzanine three years later at 60 Brady St. in San Francisco). He also painted Alembic's logo. We all shared the kitchen and lounging areas.
Lesh1 Lesh2 During 1969 we developed the Alembic electronics and pickups. We first installed them in David Crosby's 12-string Guild guitar (which he still uses to this day) and then into Phil Lesh's SG bass that had been hand painted by Bob Thomas in his trademark renaissance/psychedelic style. After several more experimental designs, both Phil Lesh's and Jack Casady's hollow-bodied Guild basses were renovated with new low-impedance pickups and new active electronics. Bobby Weir's and Jerry Garcia's guitars were done as well. Slowly all aspects of the Dead's gear for the road and the studio were becoming "Alembicized!"
During the late summer and fall Ron was invited to participate as an instructor, along with Fred Catero and David Rubinson in the Bill Graham Seminars. We met many interesting people who came to listen and learn from the talks. One of them was Rick Turner whom we later invited to work with us.
Pacific Recording went out of the 16-track business almost as soon as it had entered it and Alembic acquired the MM-1000. We immediately turned to doing live recording as this we felt was the only way to truly capture the essence and electricity of the music as the audience and musicians fed upon the each other's energies and excitement. With Ron's improvements to the Dead's PA system and the new musical instruments, we were ready to pursue the project that consummated into the "Live Dead" album. This is still one of my all-time favorite Dead albums. The energy at those concerts was immense and magical.
Alembic was also hired to provide the sound system and record the sound track for the Altamont concert that was filmed by the Maysles Brothers. It is the film known as "Gimme Shelter". The featured artists were The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane. Yes, it was the concert that someone hired the Hell's Angels as stage security and to say they took their job a little too seriously would have to be an understatement. It was bad enough during the concert, but later that night when most of the crowds had left, the violence and destruction still went on. We lost part of our PA in a bonfire that someone had started. There was one unfortunate stoned individual that knocked over a bike and when it's owner tried to start it and it didn't respond, took out his anger on that individual with a little help from his gang. It was pretty brutal.
1969 was fast coming to an end with the usual all-niter Grateful Dead New Year's Eve Concert. They were joined by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Sons of Chaplain, The Ace of Cups, The Jefferson Airplane and solos by Joe Cocker. It was one of the best concerts I can remember.
1970 Alembic moved to 320 Judah Street, San Francisco in February. We were a small but potent company. There was Ron and myself as the owners and design team, then we hired John Curl, another engineer, Jim Furman, a former geometry teacher (later started Furman Sound Co.), as Ron's technician. "Kid" Candelario, "Sparkie" Mark Raizene and Steve Parrish were hired as roadies for the PA and recording equipment. These three later became part of the Grateful Dead road crew. There was a joke at the time that you had to do time at Alembic before you got on the Dead road crew. John Cutler, who currently does the mixing for the Dead, worked for and received much of his training from us. Frank Fuller was the head of our instrument repair section with Rick Turner working with him.
We worked mainly on custom basses and refining the process of our electronics package. Through our instrument repair division combined with Ron's knowledge of physics, we worked on improving the structural integrity of instruments as well as the electronic and sustain characteristics of instruments. David Crosby's 12-string Guild guitar and Phil Lesh's Guild bass were among the first complete renovations we did. Phil's bass featured the first quadrophonic electronics. "Gee Ron, do I really need 20 knobs on my bass?" Ask anyone who heard Phil play it and you'll get an emphatic "yes!"
Live recording and PA work was a large part of our company during this period. We recorded "Workingman's Dead", "ACE" (Bobby Weir), Garcia's "Wheel" and the New Riders of the Purple Sage to name a few. Alembic became a Corporation in the summer of 1970. Ron invited Bob Matthews and Rick Turner to participate in the company and gave them both equal stock to encourage them in this newest endeavor.
In the summer of 1970 Alembic embarked on its largest venture to date. We did the PA and soundtrack for a movie that Warner Bros. was making called "Medicine Ball Caravan". The French documentary film-maker Francois Reinchenbeck was the director and Tom Wolfe was along and wrote the book of the same title. This must have seemed like old home week for Tom since his writing of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". Many of the same people featured in his book were on this "trip" as well.
Some of the preparation for this trip included tie-dying huge canvas teepees, that we were going to be sleeping, showering, eating etc. in, to the outfitting of buses to carry the various crews for filming, recording, cooking, roadies and other interesting personalities.
Wavy Gravy was there in a body cast, I remember it was difficult for him to shower. There were many others from the original Ken Keasey Merry Pranksters and Hog Farmers. All of the buses had names painted on them. Ours was "Pursuit". The slogan, "We have come for your daughters (and sons)", was prominently displayed on the front and back pf the bus. We would pull into our target town/city like Taos, New Mexico say and do a free live concert with BB King, then hit the road to Nebraska and do a campfire recording of Joni Mitchell. By the way, Nebraska didn't cotton to us being there and the day after our concert, the state troopers escorted us out of town. Our last USA concert was outdoors behind the National Archives in Washington, D.C. featuring Alice Cooper, what a crowd pleaser.
After some time off for good behavior we then flew Air India from New York to London. Along with about 60 members of the troupe on the plane, we landed at Heathrow Airport. I can still see the odd look on the faces of the people waiting to get through customs when we came piling into the airport. It was one of mixed emotions of fear, amazement, amusement and of course disapproval. No matter, the last gig for the "Caravan" was Pink Floyd, all night at the University of Kent at Canterbury. This was the same week-end that Dylan did the Isle of Wight concert. It was a cold night in Canterbury with a great deal of fog that only added to the surrealism of the music and the mood that spread through the crowd with the intensity of an electric wire. It was unbelievable.
1971 Alembic moved to 60 Brady Street in San Francisco, taking over the former Pacific High Recording Studio. We did a lot of renovation. The facility was transformed into a state-of-the art sixteen track recording studio.
PF-5 pic We also established a music store in which we sold the new Alembic guitars and basses (all Series I/II with our PF-5 electronics) as well as Alembic cabinets, complete with tye-dyed speaker fronts. We also sold McIntosh amps, JBL, EV, Gauss, Shure, B&K, custom cables etc. etc. We offered a PA design and consultation service that was headed by Ron Wickersham.
Alembic had the largest physical studio in San Francisco, large enough to hold a symphony orchestra with room to spare. The walls were movable panels to change the size and acoustics of the room. We did a lot of recordings in that studio. Stephen Stills, The Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Winters, Santana, The Doobie Brothers and the Youngbloods to name just a few.
We wanted the guests to be comfortable and entertained so we had a R & R area with the first ever video game brought in to compliment the pinball machines. Does anyone remember "Pong"? It was addicting to play video games even as simple as that one back then.
The Alembic R & D department was busy, introducing the first parametric equalizer which Ron designed for Bobby Weir. We embarked on a new project for the Dead, one that later would have world-wide fame and acclaim. It would be dubbed, "The Wall of Sound", and it was.
1972 Preparations were being made for a big European Tour with the Dead. The album would be simply named, "Europe '72". Ron was entrenched in redesigning the Ampex MM-1000 from the existing transport that accommodated 10" reels as it was not adequate to capture as much of the live performance without interruption as possible. Since you could never plan on how long the Dead would play once they got started on a jamming session, a trademark of theirs to say the least, it was better to be prepared and plan ahead. After all, you might miss the most exotic combination of notes right when it was necessary to change the reels of tape, bummer city.
Ron was additionally transforming the MM-1000 from its unwieldy flat transport with eight tracks on top and eight tracks below into a video transport that would accommodate the 14" reels as well as redesign it to 30ips to improve the sound quality and reduce the drop-out rate. The engineers at Ampex thought this was a pretty cool idea and dropped on by to take notes.
We started writing a monthly column for Guitar Player Magazine called the ALEMBIC REPORT in which we critiqued products from other companies.
During this high time, even with recording and PA development, we were not neglecting the need for superior instruments. We took all that we had learned and experimented with and completed the now famous Jack Casady bass that appeared in Guitar Player as "Jack's $4,000.00 Custom". The bass was made of Zebrawood with lots of purpleheart wood that Rick carved over the entire back and some of the front. The fingerboard had a "Tree of Life" style of inlay. The pickups were movable, traveling on brass tubing installed in the front of the bass. The active electronics were later enhanced by the addition of a superfiltering system.
Stanley Clarke got his first Alembic bass in 1972. This was the beginning of what was and continues to be a life long relationship with one of the quintessential bassist in the world.
This was the year that Rolling Stone did a special insert on Pro Audio Gear in one of the issues. There was quite a spread, over two pages on Alembic alone. There's a group photo in the article that shows Mica as a two year old and Ron and I still have dark hair (and lots of it, too)! The article dealt with the high tech aspects of our entire company from recordings and sound system specialists to the custom instrument aspect of what we were trying to accomplish, which was to improve the quality of recorded music. It was also at this time that we took on another stockholder, a good friend Sam Field.